Don't Leash the Gopher Tortoise

Over the last two years of working with wildlife groups in Florida I’ve seen five – yes, five – juvenile gopher tortoises come in to us in boxes. How’d they get in a box? Well, each were surrendered to local pet shops and then funneled to the nearest zoo or aquarium (where I was at) in an effort to get the protected species back to where it belongs.

Apparently local residents spy the small tortoises, fall in love with their intricately gorgeous shells, and start to think that a gopher tortoise for a pet sounds like a great idea. While I can’t exactly think of a major negative with this beyond their somewhat smelly poo… I also know that the species does far too much good out in their natural scrub and hammock habitat to be cloistered inside a suburban home or penned up in a run in someone’s backyard.

And if I’ve seen five in two years that were actually surrendered that really makes me suspiciously ponder all the times I’ve been told by students that they had pet turtles back at home. How many gophers are out there as pets in Florida?

There’s another gopher tortoise pet problem – their interactions with dogs. I’ve known a handful over the years that were brought in as rescues because of dog bites with lasting leg and foot injuries sometimes preventing them from a future release. For now the juveniles I’ve seen have all gone up near the same spot, a sanctuary near Gainesville and Ocala in a more northernly area of the state.